Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 3, 2015
Kristina Kleutghen Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces Seattle and London : University of Washington Press, 2015. 400 pp.; 112 color ills. Cloth $70.00 (9780295994109)

In the last decade, the study of eighteenth-century Qing court art has become its own subfield of late imperial Chinese art, with specific objectives pursued from a distinctive interdisciplinary perspective. In the wake of the revisionist “New Qing History” that has sought to displace the Sinocentrism of earlier historical narratives, the art commissioned by the last dynasty’s non-Han ruling elite has come to appear more complex than what the labels “hybrid” or “exotic” might convey. (On the objectives of the New Qing History, see Joanna Waley-Cohen, “The New Qing History,” Radical History Review 88 [Winter 2004]: 193–206.) Tibetan, Mongolian, Inner and Northern Asian, as well as Chinese and “Western” cultural and artistic practices were selectively mobilized to give form to a new idea of emperorship and to the cosmopolitan world these ambitious rulers envisioned for themselves. Concurrently, eighteenth-century courtly cosmopolitanism was most frequently tested by its degree of exposure to and absorption of techniques and bodies of knowledge from the West. The prestigious tradition of early modern Jesuit cultural studies has long highlighted the contribution of Jesuits to the construction of the Qing imperial vision. Though these studies have usually singled out the “China-West” trajectory from the nexus of transcultural negotiations that were simultaneously at play at the Qing court, they nonetheless revealed the interconnectedness of the Qing court to the world, laying the groundwork for much of the “global turn” of today’s art history. (For a recent discussion on the coordinates of global art history from the perspective of Chinese studies, see Wang Cheng-hua, “A Global Perspective on Eighteenth-century Chinese Art and Visual Culture,” The Art Bulletin 96, no. 4 [December 2014]: 379–95.) Kristina Kleutghen’s carefully conceived new study, Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces, sits comfortably at the intersection of these two academic subfields, and provides specialists of both with an overdue, in-depth analysis of this remarkable moment of cross-cultural encounter.

“Scenic illusion” is Kleutghen’s expedient translation of the Chinese term tongjinghua, literally “crossing-views painting,” which was used interchangeably with the term xianfahua, or “line-method painting,” to classify floor-to-ceiling depictions of mainly narrative subjects that were painted on silk and pasted on the walls of emperors’ residences. Heightened descriptive accuracy, optically cohesive compositions, and self-effaced execution dissolved pictorial surfaces, giving the impression of permeable spaces extending beyond the walls’ physical boundaries. That impression was meant to be short-lived: deception quickly gave way to recognition of the scene as a picture and to amazement at the supreme technical mastery the pictures put on display once they ceased to depict reality. The term tongjinghua denoted the paintings’ effect of linking the “scene” of the painting to that of the beholder, literalizing the relational capacity that classical Chinese aesthetics afforded to the concept of the “scene” (jing). Conversely, xianfahua underlined the manufactured nature of the illusion, revealing that that experience of naturalness was induced by rigorous technical rules. In scenic illusions, the world was “given,” to borrow from Stanley Cavell, and not generated by the beholder’s active participation in the work, as is the case with gestural brush painting. For Kleutghen, scenic illusions are not simple backdrops to other courtly expressions, nor should they be understood as local reiterations of an imported “Baroque” sensibility; rather, beneath their conception, execution, and reception lay fundamental aspects of Qing court ideology and aesthetics. Scenic illusions thus embody for her a quintessentially eighteenth-century enchantment with the porous boundaries between reality and fiction that permeated the artistic culture of the time, within and beyond court circles. This repositioning of scenic illusions to the core of the Qing visual universe will undoubtedly change the way we think of canonical works of the time.

Imperial Illusions consists of six chapters, framed by an introduction and epilogue. After an overview of indigenous modes of pictorial illusionism, the tradition of mural decoration in secular and religious contexts, and the activities of Jesuits in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Kleutghen introduces Nian Xiyao’s The Study of Vision (1729), a fundamental text for reconstructing the reception of Western geometrical perspective in China. The remaining chapters focus on individual scenic illusions or thematic clusters. The reader is guided through the emperors’ concerns about lineage transmission (chapter 3), the intermingling of imperialist expansion and spiritual self-cultivation (chapter 4), and the reminiscences of gallant encounters and the prospects of life in retirement (chapter 6). This last chapter concentrates on the extraordinary spaces of the western room of the Juanqinzhai, the only pictorial project that survives in situ and is currently undergoing restoration. Unlike these studies of projects designed for indoor spaces, chapter 5 takes the reader outside, into the Qianlong Emperor’s celebrated “Rococo” garden, where life-sized replicas of different kinds of buildings turned Qianlong’s “European” dream into a concrete albeit deceitful reality. Considering that only a very small portion of an already very small portion of surviving scenic illusions has been published and that gaining access to the restricted areas of the Forbidden City is notoriously difficult, the wealth of visual and textual documentation supporting Kleutghen’s study is exceptional. In her analysis, scenic illusions are granted enough conceptual space to comment on a wide range of contemporary events. Sometimes their message is surprisingly transparent; sometimes it lies beneath a thick coat of rebuses. Kleutghen expertly navigates institutional and social history, literature, religion, and philosophy to disentangle each painting’s original message. The reader familiar with the historiography on the Qing will find a remarkably cohesive review of recent scholarship as it applies to the visual arts; to the nonspecialist, the volume provides an excellent entrée to Qing visual culture and the Qianlong Emperor (1711–1799, r. 1736–1795).

Kleutghen’s thorough archival research reveals that the Yongzheng Emperor (1678–1735, r. 1723–1735) was the first to commission large-scale, semi-permanent scenic illusions, although experiments with one-point perspective had begun earlier. The Qianlong Emperor, Yongzheng’s son and successor, was their most committed supporter and consumer. Most scenic illusions were produced as cooperative works between the 1740s and the 1780s, at the apogee of Qianlong’s long reign and of the dynasty altogether. The Qianlong Emperor is the real protagonist of Kleutghen’s narration, and different facets of this monarch’s prismatic personality reflect against the paintings’ lustrous surfaces. In chapter 3, for example, a beautifully painted toddler rushes toward an oncoming viewer under the attentive eye of a palace lady. Tucked into a small pavilion (appropriately named Studio for Contemplating the Future [Siyongzhai]) in the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanmingyuan), the illusion concealed—or, to put it more precisely, revealed to the informed eye—key evidence about the fragile mechanism of heir designation. Kleutghen relates this picture to paintings and poems celebrating the emperor as archetypal Confucian patriarch, all of which touched on this issue in more oblique ways. Interestingly, a yellow paper slip identifying the child as Yongyan, Qianlong’s fifteenth son, was added at a safer time after Yongyan (1760–1820) had ascended the throne as the Jiaqing Emperor (r. 1796–1820). With the picture shifting from sensorial trickery to historical document, the motivations behind Qianlong’s decision to entrust such a critical message to a painting remains unclear. In this and most cases, the Qianlong Emperor is cast as the scene’s ideal beholder, but in at least two instances, including the enigmatic The Qianlong Emperor Watching Peacocks in their Pride (1748) of chapter 3, the emperor is simultaneously the beholder and the character of the pictorial fiction. One wonders how this “worlding” process intersected with theater, ritual, portrait historié, or other choreographies of the multiple that shaped and structured imperial subjectivity at the time.

Although Kleutghen’s main focus is on reception, the issue of how the specialized knowledge required to manufacture illusionism was created and disseminated also runs throughout her study. The extensive discussion of The Study of Vision in chapter 2 positions the text within Nian’s interest in various branches of “Western” knowledge, as well as within the milieu of techno-bureaucrats who carried highly specialized skills from and to the court. Nian claims to have learned perspective from Giuseppe Castiglione, the most famous among late eighteenth-century Jesuits. While this unverifiable fact was likely intended to add a special veneer to Nian’s expositions, it is nonetheless indicative of the fluid circulation of knowledge between court circles; the capital, where Jesuit churches displayed astonishing illusionistic ceilings; and the provinces. Kleutghen demonstrates that like other manuals of the time this was more an intellectual meditation than a primer for aspiring quadraturisti. Particularly illuminating is Kleutghen’s discussion of the contrast between the text’s ample illustrations and their succinct labels. Unfortunately, other than a straightedge and a few tools, archives yield virtually nothing on the training and working method of workshop artists. Kleutghen gives figures like Yao Wenhan and Ilantai more autonomy from their Jesuit mentors, but documentation about artists’ division and organization of labor is probably lost forever. This is particularly regrettable considering that in the paintings selected for this study the principles of perspectival construction were not mechanically applied but continually adapted to the needs of each commission.

Ultimately, Kleutghen’s study traces the contours of a fast-changing milieu of artists with different training modeling their expertise to the demands of a discerning emperor and the influx of new technologies and fashions. Scenic illusions came to life in dense, saturated environments, where their spaces cut through those of life-sized mirrors, furniture, and other paintings (as in the Studio for Contemplating the Future) or decorated wall papers or theater stages (as in the Juanqinzhai). The cumulative effect of these multiple illusory devices might be lost forever, but the volume’s clear layout, excellent apparatus of photographs and diagrams, and additional online resources revitalize scenic illusions as nearly palpable realities. For Kleutghen, the process of image making is essentially reproductive of discursive formations, and therein lies the greatest methodological difference between her study and another investigation on the image at the Qing court, Patricia Berger’s path-breaking Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2003) (click here for review). Scenic illusions came out of the same cosmopolitan environment of the collaborative Buddhist paintings discussed by Berger. Like this and other artistic practices of the time, they dwell uneasily in one, single artistic lineage. Pictorial illusionism was not a novel import in China, and, although its history was already compromised by the eighteenth century, its legacy, especially the ancient association of mimesis to efficacy, lingered on these eighteenth-century incarnations. It is, however, impossible to know what these ancient illusionistic paintings looked like, but presumably they shared little with the lifelike depictions in tombs and shrines that were designed to elicit modes of vision other than the human, outward gaze. The prestigious tradition of mural decoration in secular and religious settings is related to what is found on Qing walls, but only at the typological level. At the same time, the European convention of trompe l’oeil, as Kleutghen points out, is inadequate to describe the kinetic and corporeal response to scenic illusions. Kleutghen is parsimonious in her use of the label “Sino-Western,” the most frequently yet somewhat uncritically invoked designation of this material, arguing instead for the inclusion of scenic illusions into the master narrative of an increasingly capacious category of “Chinese Painting.” But, perhaps, it is the syncretic model—a central tenet of the New Qing History, too—that should be reexamined in depth. The sophisticated cultural and artistic negotiations that this study documents defy the most creative, hyphenated characterization we may invent. Instead, such experimentalism could be understood as the attempt to construct a unified visual culture, the embodiment of a particular experience of cosmopolitanism, that was more than the sum of its parts. Imperial Illusions provides the ideal platform for rethinking eighteenth-century court art as distinctively Qing.

Michele Matteini
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, New York University

Please send comments about this review to